Winning with virtual malls

Why 3D is still in the distant future for winning with e-commerce

It’s been quite a while since some of us have stepped into a mall because of Covid-19. While malls are might be opening in some parts of the world, even there footfalls are still down. After all you really wouldn’t want to breathe in that regurgitated air in the midst of a pandemic. This causes a dilemma for retailers. What do you do when you have shopping festivals like The Great Singapore Shopping Festival (GSS) or the Dubai Shopping Festival or festival themed shopping events like Diwali and Christmas on the horizon. While e-commerce is the only avenue, how do you really bring the “mall experience”, to your desktop? This week the GSS did try to make this a reality with a website that creates a 3D environment that interlinks several web destinations and using 360° photography to recreate the interior of shops. Which all in all was quite a good effort. Would it lead to direct sales? Maybe not. Here’s why.

When it comes to making the jump from a traditional e-commerce experience to one in 3D the novelty of the experience needs to be balanced with the easy of use and the confidence of the customer in making a purchase in a completely different checkout process. Which is why sites try to create a 3D experience to entice viewers but take them back to familiar territory of a traditional e-commerce shopping basket when it is time to check out. The problem I anticipate is that switching between these two environments can be a bit of a jar to the user and might just lead to a fair amount of abandoned shopping baskets. Time will tell. 

Ease of navigation is even more important when it comes to building a 3D e-commerce site. In all fairness the site has a band of logos at the bottom that allows you to navigate to respective shops. But the user is encouraged to literally walk through the experience instead. It took me a while to realise that I could navigate the GSS Centrum Furniture site using arrow keys (this information was tucked way and not on the initial overlay). The site designers have tried to streamline your journey by using waypoints – which in essence puts your entire journey through this virtual mall on rails. In fact, you literally glide through this empty mall. While there might be slight changes in the level of the flooring and such, the camera angle / height from the floor remains a constant and this results in a floating sensation. Like a wraith flying through a ghost mall. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

Having a full-blown product catalogue in 3D and navigating through it is another challenge. While there are a few furniture items recreated in 3D at what appears to be the reception area, most of the site relies on photography of showrooms to showcase products and complements this with traditional 2D images or just directly linking it to product description pages on existing e-commerce sites.

All in all, I think the GSS Furniture Centrum site is a step in the right direction when trying to integrate 3D into e-commerce. Sure, there are things that could be improved. Some of the store front images are so out of sync with the perspectives of the rest of the experience that you can instantly feel the jarring of an ill-placed texture. The store fronts do have individual 3D elements in the front to differentiate them, so that no two stores look identical. But what would have made them really stand out was to have more depth in the doorways, creating the illusion of you peering into the store. The half-hearted attempt at gamification that was slapped on should definitely be ditched.

The icing on the cake of this experience is truly the size. Its bang on. Big enough to give you space to wander, small enough to ensure you don’t feel weary with the system to jump to any of the shops with a click. At first, I wondered why you had to have such a small virtual experience? I am instantly drawn to the difference between Singapore malls and Indian malls. The former maximises their space with narrower walkways while Indian malls opt for wider corridors and empty areas within. Now if you had to create an Indian mall in a virtual space the navigation would become a lot more tedious. Too much of the zoom and fade effect to hop from one waypoint to the other would become irritating very quickly. I mean there are already the interiors of some Indian malls on google maps. You know how annoying moving through those can get. This is not moving a character around like in a game. Speaking of which, the GSS experience is a far cry from creating the kind of shops you find in games. Calling it a gaming experience like some people have would also be a misnomer.  

Thinking about it though, gaming has provided us with some excellent experiences and inspiration when it comes to virtual shops. There’s a shop or a market to be found in most games these days. While a common occurrence in RPG games, they are now found in everything from third person games to firs-person shooters. At the top of the mind I remember the detailed bustling market in Marrakesh from the Hitman game, the small shops of Horizon Zero Dawn or the stores found in Dishonoured or Borderlands series. There are so many ripe examples. These shopping experiences use the same principles of mixing 2D screens and elements with 3D elements, often mixed with some narrative too. There is always a virtual shop front with a friendly virtual shopkeeper that makes just the right amount of small talk. Its immersive and the blend of 2D grid based inventory systems have become a time tested format.

We are still a way off from creating design systems that we can reuse when it comes to integrating 3D, whether it is AR, gaming or web 3D into a retail workflow. The GSS site places a  stake in the ground, hoping that other developers can learn from its success and failures to better improve such experiences. And we are grateful for that.

Lastly, I leave you with this thought that I touched upon a little earlier. The validity of the idea. During this Covid-19 pandemic people have been starved for their regular dose of socialisation. So how attractive then is wandering through an empty mall? Unless you are able to see some kind of representation of other virtual shoppers, its not going to be a faithful recreation of shopping in the real-world. It’s after all one of the factors why people flock to malls. Sure you get to see a lot of shops to compare products. But it’s the bustle of the shopping experience in a mall or superstore that adds to the visceral experience. Sometimes the urge to shop is triggered by those around you.